Saturday

Big Sam & Boxes on Wheels


There was a time when cars were king. Every model was a wondrous work of art, styling, and powerful engineering. Maybe it was because we were young. Maybe it was because they were just a different kind of car.

Back then I had one of these. A '59 Chevy Impala that I modestly called "Big Sam." It wasn't new when I got it, not by a long shot. But it was something else.

The jet style fins jumped into a short-lived automobile fashion with the General Motors 1959 models, although hints of what was coming sneaked into a couple of concept cars and the subtle model lines of several mid and late 50's cars. But with the '59, GM just went wild, admirably so.

Big Sam was a car I had back in my college days. It had a trunk that was bigger than whole cars I would later own and an engine compartment that was so big and roomy that you could actually climb in to work on the engine and you actually could work on the engine too. And when you pressed on the gas pedal, there was no turbo hesitating to get up to speed and there was no 4 cylinders looking for the rest of the engine either. It just got up and went. Fast.

I named Big Sam after an old grizzled man who frequented a family neighborhood bar nearby, named Sam. His face was time-worn and his hunched over stance, leaning forward slightly, reflected his sixty some years of a hard struggling life that led to his then-current daytime job as a mechanic for a local family amusement park, at a time when there still were such things.

He looked older than his years, but every day he quietly left his small two room dusty cabin next to the park and walked over to start his day changing oil and tightening chains on kids' rides that were easily as old as him. At the end of each day he just as quietly left the park to walk to Andy's Bar, where he'd drink a small bottle of cheap red wine, or two, before the night air turned dark and damp and he'd start his walk home.

Sam was a tired man but he was kind too. He tried to be friendly with everyone and seemed to understand when occassionally his time-roughened appearance caused strangers to ignore his soft "howdy." It was a greeting that marked his exit from another place in time no one else remembered. He had a warm smile that he seldom found a reason to show, but when he did, you knew it was real. He was a lot like that big old lumbering 59 Chevy Impala I had. It was a remarkable aged icon of another, earlier time that still was unique with a well-worn sort of dignity too. It was so like him that I got some paint and painted "Big Sam" in small print just beside the door handle. I never named a car before that one. I never named one after that either.

A lot of things have come and gone over the years. Some have hung around. Honesty. People trying to do what's right. That still matters. Being proud of what you do, that does too. And doing your job right, that still matters too. The line workers in Detroit and elsewhere, they know that too. Somewhere along the way, though, the bosses became bean counters and the only thing that mattered was profit. When that happened, the Big Three started to slide. They've been sliding ever since.

What we need from GM, and Chrysler too for that matter, is some of what used to matter in Detroit. A sense that people matter --- more than profit or the cost-cutting machines that replace them. Efficiency matters, but quality matters more. And maybe not forgetting that quality is something that starts with the hands that work the assembly line. And we need cars that are a thing of beauty again. It has taken GM decades to realize that maybe we don't really need cookie cutter boxes with wheels on them that have interchangeable labels, some Buick, some Pontiac, some Chevrolet, some Oldsmobile.

Motor vehicles have aged in the last 100+ years from a thing of convenience and necessity, to Beautiful Art on Wheels and then back to convenience and necessity again. There is a place, I'm sure, where cars are still a work of art that stirs emotion. If GM and Chrysler can find where that is, they'll survive and probably prosper. If they don't, well they'll probably survive anyway.

That place is what made the cars of another generation fun to drive, amazing to just look at, and sell with excitement. And it wasn't all that bad either.

I still remember Big Sam. Somewhere along the way I went on to other cars and other bars. I never knew what happened to Sam. Not him. Not the car. Years later I went by the street corner where Andy's Bar had been and it was gone too.

My wife and I don't drive a GM or a Chrysler now. Sometimes I wish I did. Whether I will in the future depends on them more than me. Still, I'd hate to lose GM or Chrysler. They're sort of like that uncle that everyone in the family talks about but doesn't know what to do about.

I'm a lawyer who has spent his entire career representing consumers against motor vehicle manufacturers and dealers. If manufacturers just built them right in the first place, and their dealers were just honest folks, I probably would have spent my career doing something else. I still wouldn't mind it now, but I suspect neither of them will change anytime too soon. Unfortunately, hard economic times don't get rid of all the crooked car dealers or the bumbling manufacturers. In the meantime, consumers need to be careful out there. And if something bad happens to you, call us. Getting rid of lemons is still what we do. Everyday. Since 1978.

Because life is too short to put up with a bad car or a bad dealer.